NPS Logo

Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

Soldier and Brave
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark WHEELOCK ACADEMY

Location: McCurtain County, on a secondary road, about 1-1/2 miles east of Millerton.

Wheelock Academy was the archetype for the tribal school system of the Five Civilized Tribes. As the first national academy founded under the Choctaw Nation's Education Act of 1842, it set a precedent for some 35 academies and seminaries financed and controlled by the five tribes. Unique in U.S. history, these schools were not mission or Government schools, though missionaries administered many of them under contract. They represented the commitment of the five tribes to self-education and were basic tools of their acculturation.

At a time when the typical mission or Government Indian school concentrated on rudimentary literacy and simple vocational skills, the more liberally endowed tribal schools attained a high degree of academic excellence. They attracted teachers from leading eastern colleges and offered secondary and classical courses as well as vocational training. Tribal Councils provided financial assistance to the more promising graduates who wished to enter eastern colleges. Much of the success of the Five Civilized Tribes in becoming leading citizens of Oklahoma may be traced to their educational achievements through their tribal school systems.

The antecedent of Wheelock Academy was a mission school established in 1832 by Rev. Alfred Wright, representing the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Choctaw Indians during their removal to Indian Territory from the Southeastern United States in 1831-34. As missionary to the Choctaws from 1820 until 1853, he helped them formulate an alphabet and published 60 books in their language. In 1842 the tribe passed an Education Act that provided for a system of academies and seminaries financed and maintained by the tribe but administered by missionaries under contract.

The tribe chose the Wheelock school because it was already flourishing; it had been so successful that in 1839 Wright had built a two-story frame dormitory to accommodate the influx of boarding students. The tribe hired Wright to run the school and recruit teachers. He held the position until his death in 1853. Wheelock Academy was one of several boarding schools for girls established by the Choctaws, who set up other boarding institutions for boys. The school became a model of Indian education, its curriculum providing a judicious blend of cultural enlightenment and practical skills. The other Civilized Tribes soon adopted similar programs. All of them based theirs on missionary cooperation except the Cherokees, who decided upon direct ad ministration.

During the Civil War, which disrupted Indian Territory, Wheelock Academy suffered a temporary eclipse. Reinstituted after the war, it was all but destroyed by fire in 1869. For years instruction took place in a gutted stone church built by the Choctaws in 1845-46, and in the few fire-damaged buildings. In 1880-84, aided by the Southern Presbyterian Church, the Choctaws rebuilt the academy. During the ensuing years, despite changes in administration, they retained control until 1932, the centennial anniversary of the school's founding. That year it be came a U.S. Indian school. In 1955, after serving the Choctaw people for 123 years, it closed.

The academy is owned and administered by the Choctaw Nation. The main historic building, the Old Seminary, a two-story frame structure built in the early 1880's, is basically sound but is in poor condition. Scores of other structures are of historical interest. A custodian in the employ of the Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains the grounds. About 200 yards from the academy are the original stone church and a cemetery, both owned by the Southern Presbyterian Church and still in use. The cemetery contains the graves of several students and teachers, including Reverend Wright.

NHL Designation: 12/21/65

Previous Next
Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005